Antonín Dvořák and Jaroslav Kvapil’s 1901 opera Rusalka is the story of a water-nymph who falls in love with a prince. Granted the ability to interact with humans at the cost of her voice, Rusalka is quickly spurned by her prince and the rest of human society, and she returns home destined to float between worlds for eternity. The prince, too, is cursed through his rejection of her, and the opera ends with his death. It is, essentially, a fairy tale.
John Adams and Alice Goodman’s 1991 opera The Death of Klinghoffer is the story of the murder of a disabled Jewish tourist aboard a cruise ship at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. It is a true story.
Rusalka was given its Royal Opera House premiere two weeks ago, and ENO’s Klinghoffer was new to London (in its staged form) days earlier. And presumably it wasn’t just me who was surprised that it was the one about the water-nymph whose production fuelled the headlines.
With a hyperbolical one-star review from the Independent, and a no-less hyperbolical five-star one from the Financial Times, the Rusalka controversy revolved around its being set in a brothel rather than wherever it is water-nymphs are meant to live. At the opening night curtain call, directors Sergio Morabito and Jossi Wieler were booed, which excited the Telegraph so much that it was no surprise when they sourced some video footage of the incident – or indeed when, on actually watching this footage, it became clear that reports of the extent and significance of the booing had been somewhat exaggerated.
The whole fracas, in other words, was something of a storm in a teacup, seized upon by reporters and readers all the more given the lack of a convincing Klinghoffer controversy. But it still happened, and it is remarkable that it did.
The production itself, for what it’s worth, is a highly Germanic, conceptual one which was originally performed at the edgier-than-ROH Salzburg Festival in 2008. To be fair to the nay-sayers, the brothel setting is far from the only shocking or bewildering aspect to it. There is a scene in which a giant cat appears to rape Rusalka, and the two scenes which feature the minor characters ‘The Gamekeeper’ and ‘The Kitchen Boy’ are both arbitrarily peppered with sex in a way that suggests the directors were getting a bit bored of all the singing at those points. When they aren’t being unnecessarily crude, furthermore, they are often being either wilfully opaque (the pervasive Christian symbolism) or slightly annoying (the stupid projections of massive fish which get in the way a bit in the opening scene).
There are, though, moments of directorial wit as well, and their characterisation of Rusalka – adorably played by Camilla Nylund – is delightful, as she struggles in her high-heels and gets her wedding outfit wrong. Up until the rape bit, the giant cat’s a laugh too. At times, this is an engaging take on the work, knowingly contemporary and actively engaged with its dramatic action. At other times, it isn’t, and it is never a convincing fit with Dvořák’s excellent but unpolemic score. All in all, it is an attention-grabbing staging, to be sure, but not a genuinely exceptional one in any sense.
I had assumed before going to see Rusalka that the broadsheets’ uniformly glowing praise for conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra and singers had mostly been a result of not having enough words left in their reviews, once they’d attacked the production, to mount a detailed critique of the music. Not so: this was a musical knockout, with the orchestra on spectacular form and a strong cast all round. Bryn Hymel as the Prince was the pick, and he paced his role with perfection up to a scintillating final duet with Rusalka.
Indeed, this final scene was by far the production’s most engrossing. It may, possibly, be a coincidence that this was also the scene in which the direction was least obtrusive. But anyhow, I was engrossed by the sheer beauty of the wondrously impassioned melodies, of the strength of Hymel’s high notes, of the drama, as they waved their arms around and embraced. This was a reminder that everything that’s great about this opera also makes it a decidedly traditional piece. As Rusalka drew to its gentle, tuneful close I wondered whether it was really worth overthinking it as much as Morabito and Wieler obviously had done.
The question which remains is what the point of ‘radicalising’ this opera really is. With the absolute core canon – late Mozart, some Verdi and Puccini, Wagner – the situation seems much as it is with Shakespeare: substantial reinvention and reimagination are inevitable and actually quite helpful in renewing a familiar tale. The substance of the work, one can assume, will stand the test. Rusalka, of course, does not fall into this category, and it can only remain perplexing that the work has been introduced to Covent Garden in a form so starkly odd. On the other hand, there were plenty of moments during the production when it struck me how irredeemably naff a completely straight version of this very nymph-heavy period piece would surely be. Trying something new is no bad thing, and this isn’t a terrible job: just one which is often insensitive.
But talking of sensitivity, I continue to be amazed that any version of a placid fairy-tale opera can rile people more than any version of The Death of Klinghoffer. Tom Morris’s production did an excellent job of letting the Klinghoffer story speak for itself, and this only heightened its emotional clout and sense of moral ambiguity. Any controversy Rusalka sparked, Klinghoffer deserved ten times over.
In his one-star Rusalka review, Edward Seckerson wrote of an ‘inexplicable disconnect between what we see and what we hear’ in the production. What is yet less explicable is the disconnect between these two operas’ substance and the reactions they provoked. A spot more concern – from all involved – for what these works are actually about would go a long way.